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POLITICS: Campaigns

Can a Louisiana Tea Partier beat the GOP establishment choice?

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Byron York,Louisiana,2014 Elections,Campaigns,Mary Landrieu,Bill Cassidy

"It's only 800 bucks to qualify," says Rep. Bill Cassidy, the leading Republican challenger to Louisiana incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, of his state's Senate race. "So if it's on your bucket list to run for Senate, you move to Louisiana, pay your 800 bucks and run for Senate."

Even though a lot of reporting on the Louisiana Senate race -- including my own -- has focused on the head-to-head Landrieu-Cassidy matchup, there will be more GOP candidates than just Cassidy on the ballot this November. Their presence could affect the outcome of the race.

Cassidy's main Republican opponent, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, concedes he is not well known around the state and today probably ranks no higher than a few percentage points in the polls. But Maness maintains that the real picture of where the race might go is not the question of Landrieu vs. Cassidy — the one everybody talks about — but the question of Landrieu vs. a generic Republican.

"Everybody says we've got to go with this guy [Cassidy] because he's got the money and the name recognition," Maness told me recently. "Well, I challenge that."

Maness pointed to a Louisiana poll done in February by the Democratic firm Hickman Associates. The poll was good news for Republicans of all stripes. First, it showed Cassidy ahead of Landrieu by 46 percent to 42 percent in a head-to-head matchup. But the poll also asked, "At this point, would you most likely vote for Landrieu to serve another term in the U.S. Senate, or would you most likely vote to replace him [sic] with a Republican?" A total of 36 percent of likely voters said they strongly or somewhat support Landrieu, while a total of 47 percent of likely voters said they strongly or somewhat support replacing her with a Republican.

"I studied the last two elections that she ran in against Republicans who look very much like my main Republican opponent this time," Maness told me. "If we get a strong conservative into that runoff, the numbers are going to be closer to that generic ballot question." The "strong conservative" in his scenario is, of course, Rob Maness.

The Hickman poll did not measure Maness' support. But a survey at about the same time by another Democrat pollster, PPP, found Landrieu and Cassidy in a virtual tie, with Landrieu at 45 percent and Cassidy at 44 percent, and Landrieu leading Maness by a slightly bigger margin, 47 percent to 42 percent. Cassidy has a name recognition advantage, although even he is not well known; when asked their opinion of Cassidy, 50 percent of Louisiana voters said they didn't know, while 71 percent said the same of Maness. So given Cassidy's edge, there's not really a huge difference between the candidate the Republican establishment has thrown its weight behind and his Tea Party challenger.

"He's spent over a million dollars," Maness said of Cassidy. "Don't we want a really strong Republican opponent who doesn't have to spend a million dollars just to stay in the hunt?"

Although Cassidy has far outpaced him in fundraising, Maness is not without resources. Last October, the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is supporting several Tea Party challengers to establishment Republicans around the country, endorsed Maness, calling him "a constitutional conservative with a remarkable record of service to our country." "He understands the value of our freedoms and will fight to repeal Obamacare and stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are bankrupting our country," the Fund continued. "He offers voters a compelling choice over Senator Mary Landrieu because he's not a Washington insider." Maness has also been endorsed by the Madison Project.

In terms of the race, Maness describes himself as "a strong conservative with a strong public service record [who] doesn’t have a record of votes that can be challenged," while he describes Cassidy as a "Republican [who] has this voting record, and a published philosophy that tends to lean toward big government solutions." As an example of his strong stand against excessive government spending, Maness told The Hill last month that he would have voted against the $52 billion aid package Congress voted for the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Just like I wouldn’t have voted for the [Hurricane] Sandy bill that had $60 billion dollars, I believe, in bloated special interest spending in it, I wouldn’t have voted for that bill either because you've gotta start holding on principle and stop spending so much money," Maness told The Hill. It's not clear how many Louisiana voters of either party would support that position.*

One unique thing about the Louisiana race is that there won't be a primary to cull the field in May, or August, or anytime. Election day, Nov. 4, will be a general primary. All the candidates will be on the ballot; for Senate, that will be Landrieu and Cassidy and Maness and yet another Republican, state Sen. Paul Hollis, and perhaps some other minor players. If any candidate gets above 50 percent of the vote, that's the winner. But if nobody gets above 50 percent — the most likely outcome — there will be a runoff between the top two in December to decide Louisiana's next senator.

Landrieu will certainly make it to the runoff. It won't take a lot -- maybe 25 percent or so -- to get into the other spot. That's where Maness sees his chance. His argument is that once the runoff happens, Landrieu's job approval is so low in Louisiana now -- as is President Obama's -- that any solid Republican can win. Why not the more conservative one?

Maybe that's true, although after a visit there recently, it's clear Landrieu has many, many strengths and has prevailed in close elections before. The problem for Maness, as it is for all little-known anti-establishment Republicans, is how does he get from here to there?

* After his quotes in The Hill were published, Maness issued a clarification saying he would have favored Katrina relief, just not a relief bill laden with extraneous spending measures. "If I had been in Congress, I would have been as strong as any advocate for aid for the people of Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina." Maness told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "The federal government should provide aid in such a catastrophic circumstance, especially when the failures of federal levees were partly to blame. I would have passionately engaged in an effort to promote and pass a clean bill, setting aside funding for relief."

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